Employee wellness is a growing concern for managers and human resources. Recent figures show that millions are lost each year due to work-related stress, anxiety, and depression. The American Institute of Stress reports that 80 percent of people feel stress on the job. Respondents also reported an increase in calling in sick or feeling physical pain from stress. At the same time, we are seeing a massive increase in remote working, with almost 50 percent of the US workforce expected to be remote or partially remote by 2027. If you manage employees who work remotely — either entirely or partially — it’s fair to ask how your organization promotes and maintains the mental well-being of remote employees.

Working remotely comes with its own pressures and challenges. While telecommuting employees may escape the dreaded morning commute and loud, distracting coworkers, they are susceptible to feelings of isolation, a lack of connection to their company, and an inability to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

As the leader of a team who works remotely two days of the week, I am well aware of the importance of mental health and employee well-being especially mental well-being in remote employees. While it might take more effort to engage remote employees in wellness programs, it is well worth the time and expense. Below are fourteen ways you can prioritize, promote, and maintain well-being of remote employees.

  1. Take Mental Health as Seriously as Physical Health
    Generally, people don’t take mental health as seriously as physical health. In fact, according to a study published in the journal Health Affairs, this is even true of doctors, with many of them failing to follow up with their patients after a diagnosis of depression. Just because a belief is popular, that doesn’t make it right. Mental health disorders can be debilitating, and employees who suffer from them deserve support and encouragement.
    If you want to break the stigma of mental health in the office and show that your organization takes such matters seriously, you need to lead by example. Consider following in the footsteps of Deloitte UK, who launched the “This is Me” campaign, through which six senior members of staff spoke out about their struggles with mental health. When managers are more vocal on these topics, acceptance of mental wellness becomes ingrained in company culture and other employees can step forward.
  2. Set up a Virtual Water Cooler
    According to a recent study, 48 percent of remote workers admit to feeling lonely, with 46 percent claiming freelancing can be “isolating.” Remote employees often work in this way because it suits their lifestyle, commitments, or productivity rhythms, but all humans are innately social creatures. They need to interact, and communication is of utmost importance. Companies with remote workers should accommodate this by setting up a virtual water cooler using tools such as Slack. Give your workforce a chance to interact and exchange opinions about life and matters outside of work. Let them get to know one another and build connections. Something this simple can have a huge impact on mental well-being of remote employees.
  3. Hold Regular Performance Check-ins
    To ensure and support the mental well-being of remote employees, managers should hold regular check-ins with their telecommuting staff members. Use this as an opportunity to build rapport and trust. Discuss goals and progress, struggles, and development opportunities. You should also deliver praise, acknowledgment, and recognition — don’t let your remote employees feel forgotten or overlooked.
  4. The Unsick Day
    One exciting idea you can think of incorporating is “Unsick Day.” This is a scheme piloted by Buffer, where every employee is encouraged to take at least one day off a year to book in for preventative treatments such as dental appointments, counseling, or eye exams. Employees can use this day in any way that caters to their sense of well-being and health.
  5. Provide a Reimbursement for Employee Fitness Activities
    We know that physical activity has many benefits — it can also have a huge impact on mental health. Forward-thinking organizations know this, and they make use of a fitness reimbursement to reduce the number of sick days taken and to alleviate stress levels.
    Consider providing a reimbursement, in full or in part, for employees. You might consider gym memberships, dance classes, or Fitbits. This will demonstrate how seriously your organization takes both health and mental well-being of remote employees.
  6. Encourage Employees to Separate Work and Private Life
    Some sources have argued that remote employees are more likely to suffer from burnout, given that it is harder to escape work physically as it’s always there, right at home. Though remote working can afford more flexibility, it’s not necessarily true that it improves work-life balance. Employees should be encouraged to have “off time” where they don’t answer work emails or check in with their team. Remote workers deserve some private time where work doesn’t intrude. Managers should ask employees when they aim to be working and when they will be “off” so they can be sure not to call or contact them during their downtime.
  7. Set Realistic SMART Objectives
    Remote employees — just like on-site employees — need to have realistic goals. Goals that verge on the impossible will only serve to stress out and disengage employees. If you want to motivate your remote workers, work with them to create SMART objectives that are stretching but not unrealistic. Consider each employee’s strengths and weaknesses and make it clear that they need to speak up if they are struggling with their goals or workload. In a modern, agile organization, there’s nothing wrong with revisiting goals if they become outdated or need revision.
  8. Be Open to Flexible Working
    Flexibility benefits everyone. By shifting focus to goals achieved rather than hours completed, employees working remotely will be able to schedule — and work around — counseling or doctors appointments in the middle of the day. Encourage your remote employees to work flexibly to address their health and wellbeing needs.
  9. Encourage Breaks — They’re Good for Employees and Business
    How many hours a day do you spend sitting at a desk? According to one source, office workers spend upwards of 1,700 hours a year in front of a computer screen. This takes a toll on your focus, motivation, and physical health. Encourage your employees to get up and take a break from their desks every so often. Employees can set alarms that remind them to stretch their legs. Ten-minute breaks aren’t too much to ask, and when the employee returns they are likely to have much more motivation to continue and perform. This will dramatically improve the mental well-being of remote employees.
  10. Have Walking Meetings
    As I’ve said, exercise has a great effect on overall health. Show employees that you are supportive of wellness efforts by holding walking meetings. Have employees set up Skype on their phones and kick your week off with a Monday morning walking meeting catch-up.
  11. Use the Right Perks and Incentives
    If you think that working remotely is enough of a perk in itself, you’re wrong. Your employees still need reward and recognition, and they will be spurred on to greater levels of performance through incentives. You should consider creative incentives that allow employees the opportunity to develop themselves and cater to their well-being. These could include anything from a paid yoga session or a visit to a health spa to a travel incentive program.
  12. Use Technology to Stay Connected
    Remote working works best when you use modern technology. Real-time communication is a necessity when it comes to keeping employees connected and supported. Use communication tools such as Slack, Google Hangouts, or Skype for group meetings and platforms such as TeamWork to assign tasks and set deadlines. You can also use performance management software to track employee performance and ensure employee needs are met.
  13. …But Organize in-Person Get-Togethers
    Technology is a great tool, but it will never be more important than person-to-person interaction. Even if your company is entirely remote, you should hold get-togethers where employees can meet, put a face to a name, and develop real bonds. For example, Exposure Ninja, a digital marketing agency that is 100% remote in nature, throws a yearly overnight summer party with team-building activities.
  14. Keep Tabs on Mental Well-Being of Remote Employees
    An increasing number of people suffer from mental health issues. Not everyone is comfortable talking about these issues at work. With an anonymous employee survey, you can ask targeted questions to assess levels of stress and anxiety in your organization. You can even use them to predict burnout or prevent bouts of depression. Remember, your employees are your responsibility — and they deserve your care. Do your best to keep tabs on the mental well-being of remote employees.